Like an Ordinary Life
An interview with Donal Ryan
(Issue 16, Spring 2014)
ĎI always wrote, since I was a child. Itís the only thing I ever saw myself as being really, from a very early age, even before school. Our house was full of books. Mam and Dad built a small room to the side of the house to store them. They actually had to take down the shelves recently because my kids and my nephew just come in and throw books all over the place.
ĎI meant to ask Mam and Dad if they got a job lot of mid-century American novelists or something because they had all of Steinbeckís books, and Hemingway, Mailer Ö One of the first kind of proper books I remember reading was The Executionerís Song. I didnít know at the time this all really happened, you know. But the description of Gary Gilmore being shot and of the blood dripping onto his trainers just seared into my memory and I remember thinking, imagine being able to make an image like that stay in someoneís head. When I read The Catcher in the Rye as a kid I got it into my head that Dad knew this guy J. D. Sallinger and that he got this advance copy especially for me, that only we knew about it. And then about two years later I heard somebody talking about it in school and I went, how the fuck did you know about that book, and felt really stupid Ö
ĎI kind of laughed my way through school. I just thought it was great craic. With the English for the Leaving Cert I just thought, sure I donít have to study like, this is what I am, this is me. I didnít do a tap of work. I presumed Iíd just get an A because I knew the stuff so naturally. I didnít, of course. I got a B and I was heartbroken.
ĎI went to study engineering and realised I was really no good at it, and then I went working for four or five years at different jobs.í Ryan then joined the Civil Service and studied for a law degree and is now a labour inspector in Limerick. ĎJoining the Civil Service was a way of never having to go through the trauma of actually looking for a job again. Iím kind of conservative. Iím a bit shy as well. Iím not good at putting myself out there. It is almost a relief now, to have a job thatís so absorbing because I can totally shrug off thoughts about books and writing.
ĎI meet people who are full-time writers and I canít figure out how they do it. How can you pay your rent like? Seriously. I canít see how itís possible. For me anyway. Iíve had jobs since I was fourteen, you know. I applied for an Arts Council bursary two years ago and was refused so I didnít really look into it too much, but if youíre going to rely on grants itís a very precarious existence. Your chances of making money out of writing are tiny. I mean I had lottery win levels of luck.
ĎMy whole twenties were spent just kind of messing around having a good time. I was always starting novels. Iíd get ten to fifteen pages in and go, you know, this is shit, and sometimes Iíd get to the end of the first draft and know I could do better and nearly be resentful of the fact that I had to do it. Iíd think to myself, I have to write this fucking thing, you know, because itís who I am. But I think sometimes I actually started to make it go wrong a bit so I wouldnít have to do it. I started to do things to distract myself too. I think thatís why I did the law degree. Then I started joining gyms and doing running and different things so that I could fill these voids where I knew deep down I should be writing.
ĎSometimes after a night out with the lads Iíd wake up with a hangover and Iíd feel sick and the sickness would be compounded by the fact that I knew that I was wasting time. I never wrote anything that I was happy with until I was about thirty-one or two. I couldnít let anything out into the world that I wasnít happy with, I just couldnít do it. Or that I thought was any bit contrived at all. That was the big problem with me, that every sentence I wrote felt contrived, felt overworked, and then when it didnít feel like an effort I didnít believe in it, you know. I must have written a million words. Thereís a box of stuff somewhere in the house that I wrote in my teenage years. Dad was like an archivist. Heíd find poems and short stories and stuff around the house and heíd keep them all in this box and itís still there somewhere in the attic. The funny thing now is theyíre starting to float to the surface like fucking dead bodies. A manuscript turned up on a hard drive of an ancient PC in my mother-in-lawís house. She was reading out bits of it and Iíd go, ďJesus Christ, Betty, just delete it!Ē
ĎWhen I met Anne Marie first Iíd been writing a book for laughs really. It was kind of a comedy about a young solicitor in Limerick. Then one day I realised this wasnít the book I was supposed to write and I talked myself out of it. About three or four years later I went and picked it up again. We were married then and I said, right, Iíll feckin rewrite the first draft of that book, and Johnsey Cunliffe was one of the peripheral characters, very peripheral now, and all of a sudden he just started talking in my head really loudly. I realised, fuck, this bookís actually about Johnsey! I could hear his voice. I could see his face, I just knew him. I knew every detail about him, you know. It was amazing. I really had to force myself every single night without fail to write that book for at least three hours and to do at least 500 words. The fact that Anne Marie was pregnant with our first child kind of galvanised me.
ĎAbout half way through that manuscript I started to make a pure balls of it and Anne Marie luckily just stopped me. She said, ďYouíre going about this all the wrong way.Ē Looking back, I know I was literally trying to ruin it for myself, I was looking for a way out.í
That book was The Thing About December, published after The Spinning Heart, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guardian First Book Award and Irish Book of the Year. ĎAwards, nominations feel brilliant like, but I havenít had a real sense of physical achievement since I finished writing the two books Ė The Thing About December especially because I kind of put so much of myself into it. Nothing has compared to the day I finished that. I remember thinking, no matter what happens now at least Iíve finished the goddamn novel I was supposed to write. A lot of it was to do with Anne Marie and her faith in me and the way she reacted to what I was writing. She still says that The Thing About December is one of her favourite books of all time which is a great compliment because sheís an unbelievable reader, and the same with my sister Mary, you know. Theyíre both really honest, which is great. My motherís almost incapable of being dishonest; itís like a genetic thing, you know, she just has to give it to you straight from the hip. I donít even think she knows sheís doing it half the time.
ĎIíve no contract now at all so thereís no one saying you have to have it written it by a certain date or we need a manuscript fairly quick like, so I know I can take my time. My next two novels are kind of straight in my head really, and Iíve a short story collection pretty much done. I think Iím just very lucky that I started the third and fourth books before anything really major happened, because if I hadnít I think Iíd have no ideas now, Iíd be so terrified by the fecking perceived pressure, you know. Honest to God, this last year so many things just seem so fucking unreal, all just pie in the sky, smoke and mirrors Ö
ĎIím planning on taking the summer off. Iíd love to know what it feels like to have weeks ahead of me, months even, with nothing to do except write. I donít know if itíll improve my writing in any way but I canít wait to have that feeling. But then Iíve an awful feeling I could go back to my old time-wasting Ö I have to avoid running around like an eejit or going to the gym too much.
ĎI literally could be happy just going to work and coming home, and the kids being happy, and not doing much except just having a really ordinary Ė or what would seem like an ordinary Ė life. I just love talking to my friends and having a laugh and a few pints. Really, laughter is kind of my main motivation in life. The only thing Iíd like is a slightly bigger house because there are four of us and the house is tiny. But I hate things changing. If we did buy a bigger house Iíd probably miss our house terribly like and want to go back to it. I mean, Iíve only had one change of job in the last fifteen years and that was a huge trauma. Same with my car Ö Iíve never had any kind of mad urges to do anything crazy really. The most out there thing Iím going to do, Iíd say, is run a marathon.í